If you’ve played fighting games for a significant amount of time, you understand just how important it is to have a comfortable and capable controller. The video game genre demands swift, sharp inputs for firing off fireballs, combo links, and super moves, so you need a controller that enables you to do just that. A standard video game controller can do the job, but for many members of the fighting game community (FGC), fight sticks—alternately known as arcade sticks—are the weapons of choice.
Fight sticks are special video game controllers tailor-made for, well, fighting games. They typically duplicate the feel and layout of the classic, Street Fighter-inspired, joystick-and-two-button-rows layout found on arcade uprights. In fact, the fight stick market was essentially birthed when ridiculously popular fighting games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat received home console ports.
“Fighting games started in arcade cabinets that used joystick and buttons for controls, and using an arcade stick replicates the arcade experience at home,” according to Kaz Ohira of Hori, a premier fight stick manufacturer. “Joystick and buttons allow for extremely accurate input, and these parts are what players look for in an arcade stick.”
It’s that arcade feel of gripping a lollipop- or baseball bat-style joystick in your hand, and manipulating buttons with the other, that draws people to adopting fight sticks. It’s not a nostalgic feeling, either. There’s an actual tactile reason why you see many fighting game players lugging fighting sticks to local and international tournaments.
Reyes Reyes III was one of them. The retired tournament fighter found it difficult to use a standard console controller while playing Vega/Claw in Super Street Fighter IV. Due to the gamepad’s combination of four face buttons, bumpers, and triggers, Reyes discovered that he had to hold the controller in an awkward, uncomfortable position in order to successfully reach all of the buttons.
“The controller mapping was getting excessive to the point where it was a detriment,” Reyes told me at a Chinatown Beatdown tournament in New York City’s Lower East Side. “I decided to buy a $50 casing for a stick.”
Reyes bought a PCB for the stick’s interior, and found someone to wire it for multi-system compatibility. “It feels like second nature, as I grew up in the arcades,” he said. “You don’t get a [console] controller in an arcade.”
The most important thing you should do before buying a fight stick is to determine the platforms on which you’ll be using it. Some fight sticks are designed exclusively for PlayStation use; others are designed with Nintendo or Xbox in mind. Fortunately, PC players don’t have to dwell in such walled gardens. Due to the open nature of the Windows platform, you can use Nintendo, PlayStation, or Xbox fight sticks out of the box or with a bit of software tinkering.
I experienced this firsthand when a friend gifted me a Hori Real Arcade Pro 4 Kai. I used the stick to play The King of Fighters ’98: Ultimate Match Final Edition, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Street Fighter V, and other games without issue, despite the fact that the PC isn’t one of the listed compatible platforms. Naturally, some of the stick’s PlayStation 4-centric features, such as image sharing and touchpad functionality, didn’t work on the PC.
A person unfamiliar with fight sticks might mistake the controllers as more or less the same, just with different designs, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s a lot of variety, including the number of buttons (six vs. eight vs. even more), button layout (straight alignment vs. Namco Noir vs. Taito Vewlix), joystick style (lollipop vs. baseball bat), and joystick gate (circle vs. diamond vs. octagonal vs. square).
Most fight sticks feature a Mode button that lets you use the lone joystick as a D-pad, left analog stick, or right analog stick. Likewise, button-lock switches are found on tournament-ready sticks. Those switches are important, as they prevent you from disqualifying yourself by accidentally hitting the Mode, Home, Start, or Options buttons.
If you’re in the stick game for the long haul, you’ll want to find one that uses real arcade-quality parts (Sanwa Denshi and Seimitsu are the two titans in the field) that will handle the wear and tear that comes with long play sessions. Thankfully, there’s quite some distance between now and the 1990s and early 2000s, when buying a stick meant dealing with suspect parts that couldn’t handle intense fighting game action.
Then, when you become knowledgeable in regards to fight stick design, visit Arcade Shock or Focus Attack to take your stick to the next level by modding it with new buttons, gates, and other parts. Stick manufacturers don’t discourage this tinkering, either; in fact, some high-end sticks possess easy-access interiors that let you mod to your heart’s content.
Though fight sticks are literally made with fighting games in mind, they are perfectly viable controllers for other arcade-style video games, such as Ikaruga or Metal Slug 3. Basically, any game that doesn’t require dual analog sticks is rife for fight stick enjoyment.
“There is some utility to playing stick with games that aren’t fighting games,” said Reyes. “Playing Puzzle Fighter on a stick doesn’t change the gameplay at any point, but it feels more whole than using a pad.”
If you have a yearning to buy to a fight stick, there are many manufacturers to explore. The aforementioned Hori is perhaps the best known fight stick maker now that Mad Catz has ceased operations, but it isn’t the only company putting out sticks. Mayflash, Qanba, Razer, and a handful of others also produce fight sticks.
Honestly, fight stick prices are all over the place. On the budget side, you can pick up a solid model for just $50. If you have zero fight stick experience, I’d recommend exploring the budget space first, as you can pick one up without spending too much moolah, and it won’t be too huge a loss if you don’t dig the controller.
“[A budget] stick may not have all of the bells and whistles compared to our premium arcade stick lineup, but we have made sure that quality isn’t compromised with the lower cost,” Ohira told us. “We recommend this stick for the novice players who want to learn to play on stick, as well as more experienced players that are looking for a portable stick to take on the road.”
A budget stick gives you just the basics, but a premium model opens the door to new features. For example, Qanba’s top-of-the-line Dragon has an aluminum interior and LED accent lighting. You’ll read more about this beast below.
If all this sounds appealing, it might be time for you to invest in a fight stick. There are many options to consider before opening your wallet, so I’ve culled a few standout sticks in various categories. Take a read and then select your weapon.